Campaigns Spreading to Reverse Downturn in Library Financing

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 11, 2008 5 min read
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Some school libraries in Spokane, Wash., are as likely to be dark and empty these days as they are filled with children. Like many of their counterparts in school districts around the state and the country, Spokane officials have scaled back school library services and staffing in response to budget deficits, a problem highlighted in a new survey by the American Association of School Librarians.

A grassroots campaign to salvage those programs in Washington state is taking hold and spreading to other states, however. After collecting more than 5,000 signatures in an online petition, a group of mothers from the 28,000-student Spokane district made some headway in the state capital, Olympia, this month in convincing lawmakers that school libraries need new funding.

“It made me sick that [the library] was being relegated to a kind of supermarket” where students just check out books, said Lisa Layera Brunkan, who founded Fund Our Future Washington with two other mothers, Susan McBurney and Denette Hill, to champion school library media centers.

“You go by the media center, and half the time you see the lights off and the doors locked and kids having to wait a week to get a question answered,” Ms. Brunkan said.

In a cost-cutting move, the Spokane district last year trimmed librarian positions in 10 schools from full to part time. The district had to make up for an $11 million reduction in state funding, or nearly 4 percent of its $289 million budget.

“Because school librarians in our state aren’t considered a part of basic education, that was one of the things we had to look at first,” said Spokane school board President Garret Daggett. Although some schools cut the number of librarian hours, he noted, some of the district’s disadvantaged schools added more services. “We highly regard our librarians. … They are an integral part of our education system. It’s just that something had to give,” he said.

Mr. Daggett said that while he supports the efforts of Fund Our Future Washington, any mandates that the state doesn’t pay for will only further burden districts.

No Luxury

Nationally, school library funding has dropped from an average of about $19 per student in the 1999-2000 school year to less than $10 this year, according to the librarians’ association.

“Here we are in an age where school libraries are becoming more crucial, when students need to learn to love to read, and to use online resources well,” said Sara Kelly Johns, the president of the AASL, which released the survey this month. “And as that’s happening, it’s becoming more and more difficult for some school districts to maintain the level of funding for library programs and staffing.”

Washington state lawmakers have taken up the issue in response to the mothers’ campaign. Two bills are now working their way through the legislature. They seek to provide money dedicated to minimum per-student funding for school library materials and staffing.

In Oregon, groups of parents have launched their own Fund Our Future campaign, and Ms. Brunkan has been contacted by advocates in Arizona and several other states who are interested in doing the same.

Many districts have made similar cuts to school library programs, which are often deemed supplemental. But the rise of the Internet age and the increasing demands on the school curriculum have led to an expanded role for the school library media specialist over the past decade, experts say.

“There’s been a slow chipping away of school library budgets. School boards and school leaders … have to decide, do you cut back on classroom teachers, or library, music, and art programs?” said Michael Eisenberg, a professor of information science at the University of Washington in Seattle who has conducted studies of school library services. “But it doesn’t make economic sense or pedagogical sense to cut libraries.”

Mr. Eisenberg pointed to a number of studies suggesting that strong library programs can translate into higher student achievement, particularly in reading. Moreover, he said, most state academic standards require that students be taught information skills, problem-solving, and critical thinking across subjects. Library media specialists fulfill those demands, he argues, in teaching students how to do research, evaluate sources, and negotiate and appraise information on the Web.

“The mission of the library media program is to ensure that students are effective users of information,” he added, citing the AASL’s national standards for school libraries. “Isn’t that at the core and heart of education? Is that a luxury?”

‘Check In, Check Out’

The AASL’s Ms. Johns works to put those ideals into practice at Lake Placid Middle High School in upstate New York, where she is the librarian. Last week, for example, she worked with a class of 6th graders on their geology projects. In addition to directing them to print and online resources, Ms. Johns was teaching them how to cite their sources, the differences between paraphrasing and plagiarism, and how to select the best information for their reports.

“First of all, we’re teachers,” she said of the profession. In her school, Ms. Johns said, she is part of the instructional team. “I work with every teacher in every curricular area, with every student and every teaching and learning style. That doesn’t happen in just a room full of books.”

Ms. Brunkan, the Spokane mother, said that she and other parents became especially concerned about the cuts in their district when they began discussing the learning opportunities school libraries offer not just their children, but also those who might not have access to information resources and someone to guide them.

“The truth is it wasn’t our own children we were most worried about,” she said. “But it was really the equity issue that kept us up at night.”

The problem has hit close to home as well. Her daughter, Isabel, a 3rd grader at Roosevelt Elementary School, used to get excited when her class went to the school library. This year, Ms. Brunkan said, that has changed.

“As a volunteer, I watched an amazing librarian bring to life the dinosaur curriculum in a very challenging lesson. … Last year, the librarian taught [my daughter] how to make PowerPoint presentations,” she said. “She came home from school this year and said, ‘Mom, it’s not library anymore. It’s just check in and check out.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Campaigns Spreading To Reverse Downturn In Library Financing

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